Meet the Philly native who ran NBC's Paralympics broadcasts

AFP_G93HX
An athlete takes a selfie with fans in Rio. Mount Airy native Lena Glaser was in charge of producing NBC's Paralympics television coverage.

Admit it: You probably didn't watch much of the Paralympics. Even if you're an Olympics junkie who happens to also be an Eagles fan, by the time the Paralympics began you had probably come down with a case of Carson Wentz fever.

You missed a lot: 4,000 athletes competing for 2,347 medals across 22 sports, ranging from swimming to blind soccer to wheelchair rugby.

Mount Airy native Lena Glaser didn't quite see all of it, but she saw a lot. The Germantown Friends product was in charge of producing NBC's 73 1/2 hours of Paralympics television coverage. Earlier this summer, she was the lead producer of NBC's late-night Olympics show that Ryan Seacrest hosted from Copacabana beach. She also was the lead producer of NBC's late-night Olympics show four years ago in London.

"Turning around from an Olympics late night show to coordinating the Paralympics, they could not be two more totally different challenges. The days are different, but they're both fast-paced and pretty exciting."

Glaser worked the Paralympics from NBC Sports' headquarters facility in Stamford, Conn. She oversaw a staff of just under 40 colleagues in the office, plus a team of reporters and behind-the-scenes folks who traveled to Rio de Janeiro.

Her job, she said, was to "make the most of every frame of footage that is coming into this building." And she knew that she wasn't dealing with just any sporting event.

"To do more Paralympics coverage than we've ever done [and] to show more people these sports and these athletes than really anyone in America has ever seen is a pretty big deal for me," she said, "I've been fortunate enough to work on a lot of big shows, and some other things, and this is really - to do something like this, for me, it's a huge challenge, but I would imagine it's the thing I'm also most proud of in my career so far."

Take the personal stuff out of it for a moment, though - where the athletes came from, where they're going, what it's like to be in such a big global spotlight.

As Glaser said emphatically, "It's also just great sports."

Her challenge was to make sure viewers realized that.

"My goal is for sports fans to really connect with these sports and these athletes, and to see something they've never seen before," she said. "We cover football and we cover so many other things, and the chance to really show a sports fan something that they've never seen before, you really just don't get it very often. So it's certainly something that I take really seriously, but I also think is just really exciting."

Although NBC as a network televised its most Paralympics coverage ever, it was a fraction of the total amount of Olympics coverage. And there was only one broadcast on the flagship over-the-air channel - and it was in the middle of a NFL Sunday afternoon. The rest of the TV windows were on NBCSN, with a mix of afternoon, prime time and late night broadcasts.

Much of it wasn't live. But spare the jokes about NBC's love of tape-delaying, because the circumstances were different this time. A big part of that was the more constrained TV schedule. Another factor was the Olympics Broadcasting Service, the production arm of the International Olympics Committee that creates the video feeds that all the TV networks use. It presented some events in highlight feeds that accompanied the 11 live event feeds each day.

Glaser built NBC's programming schedule accordingly.

"Some of it was live, and some of it was on delay," Glaser said. "It really depends on when the races happened and when the windows were. So our focus was on making sure that we put the best competition on the air every day. If it means we needed to turn something around quickly, we would probably do that. But any chance that we had to be live, we also took that too."

As all of that footage came in to Stamford, and Glaser and her colleagues picked the best parts of it to feature on TV. And of course, they added in the usual mix of profiles and other feature stories that NBC's Olympics coverage is famous for.

One of the biggest challenges that Glaser and her colleagues faced as they presented Paralympics events was how to explain the system that classifies athletes by levels of ability.

The classification system is not simple. For example, you might see a swimming heat in which one competitor has full limbs and another does not, but they're competing at the same level.

"They might not have use of their lower limbs, but this other person might have some degree of paralysis, and the fact that this person is able to achieve an equal degree of strength on both sides of his or her body, that sort of equates with someone who might have all of their limbs," Glaser said. "But they have to deal with an imbalance because they don't have use of the leg on their left side. Some of those things are also really helping us identify why those things that seem like completely different disabilities might actually line up and create a fair competition."

If that seems like a lot of words you aren't alone. To help make the system easier to understand, NBC contracted with LEXI, a British firm whose specific purpose is creating animated graphics packages that explain Paralympics classifications.

Here's an example of how LEXI explains the classifications in wheelchair rugby:

"We did remind the audience about those things, because if people weren't watching every day, we want to make sure that we reiterated and clarified all of that stuff," she said. "It was absolutely a priority for us [and] something we were discussing in every production meeting."

NBC also hired former Paralympic athletes to work as studio analysts and event commentators. As with many newcomers to life on camera, there's work required to hone how they come across on camera. And many viewers, fairly or not, expect everyone who they see on TV to be equally polished regardless of training or background.

Glaser saw a group of commentators who were very willing to put that work in - and fully aware of what it means to tell Paralympians' stories to a wide audience. She spoke at length on the subject:

What I was consistently struck by was a level of maturity and a really poised way of speaking about themselves that almost every one of these athletes that I have talked to has had.

To be honest, I think that's what comes from having to, to some degree, explain yourself on a daily basis - and to really have kind of fine-tuned a way to tell your story to so many people. Just because for a lot of people, it's the first time that they've seen anyone who does what they do.

I really find that a lot of these athletes are just - even at a very young age - the sort of maturity and poise and the way they carry themselves, and their desire and ability to be extremely generous with their time, to be honest with you, is something that I have never seen anywhere else. It is really remarkable, and it definitely affects me.

When we would sit down to do a run-down, and think about what we were going to show each day or each night, it was something that became sort of innate to the way we program everything, because we know these athletes a little bit and we really wanted to do right by them.

For us, I think a big part of it is just knowing what kind of hard work they put in, similar to Olympians, and how this is their moment and we want to be able to showcase that as much as we can...

The same way we sit down with all of our Olympic analysts and say the same things to them before every Games about explaining your sport. Understanding that a lot of people only watch swimming every four years [and] might not watch a World Championship. Or an Alpine World Cup [skiing] season.

In all of that sport explanation, I've really found that the Paralympians that we work with on our broadcast team, they get that immediately. Because they are so used to having to explain this stuff. A lot of the things we work with them on are really fine-tuning it, and can you say it in 10 seconds, and finishing a thought in your heard before you figure out how to get it into a replay sequence. But in terms of the ability to explain their sport, they really have excelled.

We encourage respectful comments but reserve the right to delete anything that doesn't contribute to an engaging dialogue
Help us moderate this thread by flagging comments that violate our guidelines
Help us learn more about Philly.com commenters. Click here to take this quick survey.

Comment policy:

Philly.com comments are intended to be civil, friendly conversations. Please treat other participants with respect and in a way that you would want to be treated. You are responsible for what you say. And please, stay on topic. If you see an objectionable post, please report it to us using the "Report Abuse" option.

Please note that comments are monitored by Philly.com staff. We reserve the right at all times to remove any information or materials that are unlawful, threatening, abusive, libelous, defamatory, obscene, vulgar, pornographic, profane, indecent or otherwise objectionable. Personal attacks, especially on other participants, are not permitted. We reserve the right to permanently block any user who violates these terms and conditions.

Additionally comments that are long, have multiple paragraph breaks, include code, or include hyperlinks may not be posted.

Load comments
Continue Reading